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Some say it was a thousand years ago.  Some say that it was two thousand years when there was a dark period in the history of The People. The Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca Nations were at war with one another. It was a terrible time of cruelty, bloodshed and mourning. But then a Huron man, referred to as the Peacemaker, canoed from the western shore of Lake Ontario.  He brought with him a message of peace and unity.


The first individual to accept his message of peace was a Seneca woman named Jigonsaseh.  Because it was a woman who was the first individual to accept his message of peace, the Peacemaker gave women an important role in the new confederacy that was to be formed. Jigonsaseh became known as “The Mother of Nations.”

"Love" by Tom Hill, Mohawk. Depicts the Peace Queen and Tadodaho.

"Hiawatha and the Peacemaker Meet Tadodaho", painting by Ernest Smith, Seneca

The first nation to accept the Peacemaker’s message was the Kanienkehaka or the Mohawk Nation. The Peacemaker traveled east and camped near Cohoes Falls.  He made a campfire so that the Mohawks in the nearby village would see the smoke and know that he was there and that he wished to confer with them. Mohawk runners came to his campsite to ask who he was and to find out what he wanted. The Peacemaker said that he was the one they were waiting for.  He was the one who was carrying a message of Peace.  The Mohawks were uncertain as to whether they should trust this stranger or not and so they said that he would have to pass a test to prove that he had the power to carry such an important message.  They said that he would have to climb a tree that was growing next to Cohoes Falls.  The Mohawks would then cut the tree down and if he survived the fall, they would know that he had great power and they would listen to his words.  The Peacemaker agreed to the test. He climbed the tree.  The tree was cut down. The Peacemaker fell into the water and disappeared over the falls.  The Mohawks waited and waited, but there was no sign of the visitor emerging from the water. The Mohawks were disappointed and went back to their village.  The next morning, a thin wisp of white smoke was seen in the distance.  Upon investigation, it was discovered that the Peacemaker had made this campfire and that he was alive and well. He was waiting to be invited to enter the village.  It was in that village that he met Ayonwatha, the one who would travel with him to convince the five nations to stop fighting and to unify. 

It took many years, but eventually, the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca Nations unified and formed a peace league.  The English referred to it as “The Five Nations”.  Later, they called it “The Six Nations” because the Tuscarora people came north from the Carolina’s in the early 1700’s to join.  The French called the league “The Iroquois Confederacy”.  The real name is the “Haudenosaunee” meaning “The People of the Longhouse” which refers to the traditional long, bark-covered houses in which the Haudenosaunee lived.  Longhouse is also a metaphor for the social, political and spiritual structure that was put into place by the Peacemaker.  “Five Nations”, “Six Nations”, “Iroquois Confederacy,” and “Haudenosaunee” are all different names for the same thing.  The Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora Nations are distinct and separate nations that belong to a United Nations called the Haudenosaunee.


The Peacemaker put into place a constitution called The Great Law.  It is documented that Benjamin Franklin met on many occasions with the Haudenosaunee to learn about The Great Law.  It is not surprising that many of the ideals, symbols and some of the structure of the Great Law were borrowed and incorporated into what was to become the Constitution of the United States of America.


The Peacemaker remembered that Jigonsaseh was the first individual to accept The Great Law and so Clan Mothers were appointed and given the responsibility to nominate new Chiefs whenever a former Chief passed away.  The women assist the Chiefs and warn them to change their ways if they forget to consider the welfare of the people they represent.  The women can remove a Chief from office if he does not heed the three warnings that the women send if a Chief is not fulfilling his duties.  The Clan Mothers keep track of the names of the children.  The Clan Mothers work with the Chiefs to uphold The Great Law.


The Chiefs, Clan Mothers, Faithkeepers and Sub-Chiefs still meet today in Grand Council to uphold The Great Law.


Symbols of the Haudenosaunee

The Peacemaker knew that the people had been fighting for a long time.  He knew that it would be difficult for the people to remember how this new policy of peace would work and so he provided symbols to help the people understand this new system.


The Hiawatha Belt

The Hiawatha Belt is a wampum belt made of cylindrically shaped purple and white shell beads.  It represents the unification of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca Nations into a peace league called the Haudenosaunee.  The belt is not worn.  It is read from the right to left or east to west.  The rectangle on the right represents “The Keepers of the Eastern Door” or the Mohawk Nation.  Travelling west, the next rectangle symbolizes the Oneida Nation. The symbol in the center is referred to as the heart and represents the Onondaga Nation or “The Keepers of the Fire.”  West of the Onondaga Nation is the Cayuga Nation.  The rectangle on the far left represents “The Keepers of the Western Door” or the Seneca Nation.  All five nations are connected by a white road of peace.  The white road of peace extends even further to the east and to the west as an invitation to other nations to symbolically follow that road to The Great Tree of Peace where they can find shelter and protection if they agree to put down their weapons of war.


The Five Arrows

The Peacemaker took one arrow and broke it.  Then he took five arrows, representing the Five Nations, and tied them together into a bundle.  That bundle was difficult if not impossible to break.  The Peacemaker used this symbol to explain to the people that there is strength in unity.


The Great Tree of Peace

The Peacemaker symbolically uprooted a white pine tree.  The white pine grows very tall and straight and so can be seen from a great distance.  It is an evergreen and so is vibrant all year.  It has leaves that look like long, slender needles.  Those needles grow in clusters of five reminding us of the unification of the Five Nations.  The people were asked to throw their weapons of war into the pit where the tree had been.  At the bottom of the pit was an underground river that carried the weapons away so that future generations would not see them. That action symbolized the hope that there would be no war in the future. The tree was then put back in the ground.  It is referred to as The Great Tree of Peace.  It has four white roots that extend to the north, south, east and west of Turtle Island or North America.  The roots are called The White Roots of Peace and are an invitation to other nations to follow them to the sheltering branches of the The Great Tree of Peace.  The Peacemaker placed an eagle atop The Great Tree of Peace.  The eagle can fly very high and has keen eyesight. The eagle is the guardian who warns of any approaching danger to the peace of the Haudenosaunee.

"The Iroquois Tree of Peace" by Oren Lyons, Onondaga

© 2014 Iroquois Indian Museum created with

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